By Matt Nevala
Alaska Sports Report
The often-seen, often-duplicated furious start from the East High boys basketball team made certain of a 35th consecutive victory Friday evening.
Stretching the sustained success another game figures to test the Thunderbirds more than just about anything has these last few seasons.
Alaska’s reigning Class 4A state champion, East forced six first-quarter turnovers and sprinted out to a 21-point lead less than 10 minutes into play. It downed Cook Inlet Conference rival West 60-41 in the Alaska Airlines Classic semifinals inside the Eagles’ gym.
Silky-smooth senior Damarion Delaney pumped in eight of his game-high 16 points in the opening period and also grabbed a game-high seven rebounds. Sophomore Akeem Sulaiman scored an impressive 13 points coming off the bench and senior Elijah Reed added 10 points.
The Thunderbirds (10-0) advanced to their first Classic title tilt since 2016. They also tied host West by reaching a seventh finale in the storied tournament’s history and, most importantly, kept the wins coming along.
“The (winning) streak really doesn’t mean anything to me,” said Reed, the 5-foot-10, 220-pounder who starred as a bruising back for the Thunderbirds’ state-champion football squad last fall. “We don’t look back on last season. We worry only what we got in front us (now).”
Yeah, about that. Tonight, the Thunderbirds get a crack at St. Joseph out of Santa Maria, Calif., and phenom Tounde Yessoufou. The freshman originally from the West Africa nation of Benin looks like he’s straight out of Marvel Studios and could be a new member of “The Avengers” alongside Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
The Knights improved to 18-2 by beating the tournament’s second Outside squad, ThunderRidge (Colo.), 62-50. In two Classic games, all Yessoufou has done is average 25.5 points, 12 rebounds and thrown down more dazzling dunks than most CIC teams dream of in a full season.
To East’s credit, it welcomes the challenge.
“We’ll be ready,” said Sulaiman. “It’s the only attitude we can bring to the game.”
East is a senior-heavy team with Delaney, Reed, Daion Doughty, Kyler Johnson and Deuce Zimmerman playing the most minutes as the starting quintet. These guys have been together forever, and Sulaiman listens to them and veteran coach Chuck Martin to grow into a better player.
“I’m always going to play hard and do what I have to do,” Sulaiman said. “I’m going to score when I have to, get up and down the floor and play strong defense.
“These guys are winners. I’ve learned a lot.”
East led 20-6 after the first and 36-20 at halftime. West (3-5) succumbed to the Thunderbirds’ defensive pressure to the tune of 18 total turnovers. Meanwhile, East only committed five turnovers, all in the second half.
“East is a very good team,” said West coach Josh Muehlenkamp. “Coach Martin does an amazing job, and those guys are always going to do what they do.”
The backcourt duo of Willie Zamora and Xyomar Velez combined for 22 points. Velez made three three-pointers. West kept things interesting as East only outscored the Eagles 24-21 in the second half.
“I told our guys we were going to find out where we were on Jan. 21,” Muehlenkamp said. “We learned we have some growing to do.”
East’s Sulaiman is listed at 6-3, 173 pounds and likely has some bulking up ahead of him. St. Joseph’s Yessoufou checks in at 6-5, 200 and appears chiseled out of granite or some other aged rock-like substance.
Somehow, these two young men are similar in age.
Why doesn’t Sulaiman look as mature.
“I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
East Anchorage Thunderbirds 20 16 12 12 – 60
West Anchorage Eagles 6 14 10 11 – 41
East – Delaney 16, Doughty 8, Zimmerman 2, Carpio 0, Johnson 6, Sulaiman 13, Rushmeyer 3, Reed 10, Sabally 2.
West – Zamora 10, Shanahan 3, Sahr 0, Bement 8, Velez 12, Breland 2, Adlawan 1, Underwood 0, John 0, Brody 2, Nauls 3.